The Common Good
March-April 2002

In the Court of the Gentiles

by Duane Shank | March-April 2002

Jewish-Christian "dialogue" is too often just that—an
intellectual, theological discussion with no grounding in shared experience.

Jewish-Christian "dialogue" is too often just that—an intellectual, theological discussion with no grounding in shared experience. Common Prayers is Jewish-Christian dialogue grounded in a journey through the Jewish year.

Harvey Cox is a well-known Christian theologian. Less well known is that his wife, Nina, is Jewish, and that they are raising their 15-year-old son in the Jewish faith. For 15 years, Cox has participated as a Christian in the journey through the Jewish year—"a recurring series of holy days and sacred seasons."

On that journey, as he encounters the Sabbath, the festivals, and life-events of marriage and death, they provide a framework for a sometimes challenging, always informative reflection on their meaning. Cox shows how a Christian living the Jewish year can come to a deeper understanding of both Judaism and Christianity. He notes that while there are important distinctions between Judaism and Christianity, there is no point in perpetuating the exaggeration of those differences. And he is surprised to discover more common ground than is often supposed.

He begins with Sabbath, that sacred time when work ceases for the joy and rest of the presence of God, the foretaste of the kingdom. The Sabbath meal becomes "a symbol and a preliminary glimpse of human life as it should be.... It becomes an aperitif for the ultimate great banquet, the most pervasive symbol of the Messianic era in both Judaism and Christianity." And he suggests that while there are enormous differences between the Sabbath meal and the Christian communion service, both have at their core a ritual of blessing and breaking bread and pouring out of wine—a "primal" connection grounded in liberation.

YOM KIPPUR, the Day of Atonement, provides the basis for a reflection on "collective repentance." Can a corporate entity—a nation or a people—repent, or is that solely an individual obligation? What is the connection between the spiritual responsibilities of an individual and those of a community?

Simchat Torah, the celebration of the giving of the Torah, leads to a fascinating reflection on the incarnation. Jews see the Torah as the physical presence of God among the people, as well as the spiritual presence that continues to teach and inspire. There are analogies, Cox suggests, to Christian belief in Christ and the Holy Spirit as physical and spiritual presences.

Hanukkah, celebrating second-century B.C.E. Jewish resistance to assimilation, has parallels with our current struggles over questions of religious accommodation to culture. "No religion ever exists in a vacuum," writes Cox. "All of them are constantly surrounded by pressures from the culture to incorporate, accommodate, assimilate. How much adjustment should be made?... There is no permanent answer to this question, and religions have to ask it again and again in every generation."

Cox begins and ends in the "Court of the Gentiles," the temple plaza where non-Jewish God-fearers could worship the God of Israel. It was a place where the hope of Isaiah that "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" was reflected. Cox concludes, "I have no intention of trying to enter the inner courtyard, where only male Jews are permitted. But I also have no inclination, having trod on holy ground, to leave and go somewhere else." It is an intention and an inclination I share—participating in Jewish observances has strengthened and deepened my Christian faith. It is an experience and a book I recommend.

Duane Shank is issues and policy adviser for Sojourners.

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